Monica, thanks for giving H2 View your time. We’re celebrating the women working in hydrogen this International Women’s Day. So, what first sparked your interest in hydrogen and working in this industry?
Monica Saraiva Panik (MSP): When I moved to Germany from Brazil in 1997, first I had to learn the language. Even speaking six different languages, I realised that if you don’t speak the country’s language, you won’t succeed to communicate with people, understand their culture and find the job you want.
So for me, it was back to school at 38 years old. It seemed I was taking a step back, but it was necessary to take a step forward. Meanwhile, at that time, my husband was working with the development of fuel cell technologies at Daimler and he heard that the Global Environment Facilities (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a fuel cell bus programme in five countries: Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, India and China.
I thought that my 20 years’ experience in the automotive sector, and the activities for promoting the Brazilian industry in the international market, would make me eligible to send my CV to Ballard Automotive, a company created by a joint venture among Daimler and Ballard to commercialise fuel cell vehicles.
I was hired as strategic business development manager for developing countries and this was my start in the hydrogen space. Even though I am not an engineer, instead I studied Social Communication with business MBA in Marketing, I have worked with engineers all my life and have a good understanding for technical areas.
Now it has been 25 years of learning and doing, and today I feel that the moment has arrived, when hydrogen became a topic of a great interest worldwide and I am very honoured to be able to contribute to the energy transition. Especially, in regions such as Latin America and Caribbean and Africa, which are mostly forgotten by the global new technology economy, but at the same time, they are the ones which need it the most to promote social-economic development and can contribute with their immense renewable energy resources.
What’s something that has surprised you about your chosen career path?
MSP: Sincerely, what most surprises me today is, when hiring people for implementing hydrogen projects, programmes, initiatives, job opportunities, most institutions seem to give preference to hire women. It is almost unbelievable for a woman of my generation. When I started my career, it was completely the opposite case, technical areas were men’s territory. Today, usually “Terms of References” specify that women have to occupy 20-30% of the positions, and the fact that there are women in a team, gives a proposal better chance to win a project tender. Isn’t it wonderful for the today and the next generation of women?
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. What does this mean to you? And what advice would you give to women experiencing bias and unconscious bias?
MSP: Even unconsciously, bias, or any kind of stereotypes or a tendency of being against any kind of group, which is somehow different from ourselves, starts at a young age. Bias can have a harmful real-world outcome because it leads to a simple and superficial physical world, where people are defined only by what they look like.
On the other hand, if you take the premise that a physical body is just clothing and what really matters is the soul, then Bias wouldn’t exist because a soul is what you really are, no matter which social group do you belong or how do you look like. A soul is a person indemnity, and this is the only thing which really matters.
What are the challenges facing women in hydrogen today, especially the next generation?
MSP: Not only women, but all human being, are facing the challenge of succeeding to implement the energy transition. Everybody knows today what is necessary to keep the earth as a living place for the next generations, but we still have about 20-30 years in front of us facing the challenge of keeping focus, avoiding deviations, fighting against “turning back” initiatives, recognising and rejecting fake news and going forward toward a sustainable development.
It will require a straight and strategic vision and a firm position, to change the way of generating and using energy, leaving in harmony with the nature, respecting it and being responsible for our own waste, understanding that there is no “throwing away”. I think the new generation was born knowing it from heart, but they have to work hard not to lose faith and hope during their journey to preserve the world.
Tell us about one woman who has positively impacted you in your career? What lesson did she teach you?
MSP: My great-aunt died when she was 104 years old. Until the age of 100 she still used to paint porcelain, she had just a few white hairs, couldn’t hear very well anymore, but could still see as a young girl. She taught me mathematics when I was at college and made me exercise every day until I turned that button inside me to the channel of “yes, I can”. She was a person who has always been there when the family most needed. When I think about her I saw strength, compassion, wisdom, light and love.
She used to tell me several stories of the family members, but the one which most impressed me was the story of my great grandmother. She was German and wanted to be a medical doctor. As it was not allowed for a woman at that time to study medicine in Germany, she moved with friends to Brazil, where this was already possible. But as we never know what the future will bring, she met my great grandfather and became a housewife. We will never know what made her give up her dream of being a medical doctor, but we know for sure that about 200 years ago she had the courage to cross the ocean to pursue it. It is not important where you get but the path you take to get there. In another words: “The journey matters more than the goal.”
Finally, what’s the key message you’d like to get across for International Women’s Day?
MSP: What does it mean to be a woman? In the former time, being a woman was linked to femininity, clothing, haircuts, cosmetics, cooking, having children, being nice and submissive. Today a woman can do whatever she wants. Don’t let any kind of external pressure to convince you about what you cannot do. There is simply no limitation for us anymore, except the ones we sometime impose to ourselves. Any of us can be whoever we want and do whatever we want. It depends just on ourselves.